Farage and the Future of the British Conservative Party

At first, Nigel Farage kept his cool. When protesters interrupted an election victory speech by Mr. Farage, a veteran British political disruptor, anti-immigration campaigner and ally of former President Donald J. Trump, he ignored them.

But as the chaos continued at Friday’s press conference, Mr Farage began to respond to criticism, drowning out critics by shouting “boring!” into his microphone no fewer than nine times.

However, with Mr Farage at his side, things hardly get boring, as Britain's centre-right Conservative Party has just discovered to its cost.

Ousted from power after 14 years by a landslide Labour vote, the Conservatives collapsed to their worst defeat in modern history, a stunning loss that has left the party’s remnants in disarray. By contrast, Mr Farage’s small insurrectionary party, Reform UK, is unstoppable, and has elevated him to a key determinant of the future of Britain’s political right, and perhaps the country’s overall direction.

His presence on the political scene and his tough anti-immigration rhetoric could have a crucial influence on the trajectory of the Conservatives, whose leader, former prime minister Rishi Sunak, said on Friday he would step aside once a successor has been chosen.

Not only did Reform candidates win five seats in Parliament, including Mr Farage for the first time in eight attempts, but the party also secured around 14 percent of the vote nationwide. By that measure, Reform was the third most successful party in Britain, inviting comparisons with France’s burgeoning right-wing National Rally.

“Reform has the foundations to mount a serious challenge not just to the Conservatives, but to Keir Starmer and the Labour Party,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, referring to Britain's new Labour prime minister. “The question is, can Nigel Farage put in place an organisation, a party structure and a professional operation that can do what, historically, he has struggled to do with his previous parties.”

Bolstering, pugilistic and charismatic, Mr Farage, 60, is a divisive figure who has long irritated the Conservative Party, which he resigned from in 1992. During that time, he and his allies were often dismissed and ridiculed, including by David Cameron, a former leader who called supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, which Mr Farage then led “muddleheads, lunatics and closet racists”.

But it was pressure from UKIP that forced Cameron to promise a Brexit referendum, which he then lost in 2016, ending his term in Downing Street.

Mr Farage recently stepped back from politics and decided to run in the general election only at the last minute. But his impact has been electric, his anti-immigration campaign hitting a nerve among the Conservatives, whose government has presided over a tripling of legal immigration since Britain left the European Union.

“He has that common touch,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “He's a consummate political communicator and has a charisma that many other traditional politicians, because they have to deal with real issues rather than invented ones, find hard to match.”

Some rightwing Conservatives want to invite Mr Farage back to their party. Others fear he could alienate their moderate voters.

He has suggested that Reform could supplant the Conservatives and might even stage a takeover of the party.

But without doing either, he has already demonstrated the threat he poses.

In 2019, the Brexit Party, then led by Farage, chose not to field candidates against many Conservative lawmakers, averting the risk of a split right-wing vote and helping Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, secure a landslide victory.

Mr Farage’s new party fought elections across the country last week, costing the Tories dozens of seats. Professor Goodwin calculated that in about 180 constituencies the vote for reform was greater than the margin of defeat for the Conservatives.

“They have problems on multiple fronts,” said Professor Goodwin, noting that the Conservatives had lost votes to Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats, “but Farage is by far the biggest problem the Conservatives face.”

The party now faces a critical decision: who should lead it and what kind of policies to embrace.

One faction wants a shift to the right to fight Reform, which, in the general election, eroded the Conservative vote in Brexit-supporting areas in the north and centre of the country, often easing Labour's path to victory. Professor Goodwin argued that, post-Brexit, support for the Conservative Party is now more concentrated among voters who are more socially conservative and anti-European.

But the Conservatives also lost votes to Labour and the small, pro-European, centrist Liberal Democrats, who won 72 seats by focusing their campaign on Conservative constituencies in the south of England, where the most socially progressive trend prevails.

“The Conservatives have lost this election on two fronts, but they seem much more worried about one front than the other,” Professor Bale said. The Conservatives appeared to blame Reform for their defeat, he said, ignoring the fact that rightwing policies that had promised to counter Mr Farage's threat had cost them votes in the political centre.

The final choice of who will become Conservative leader lies with party members who tend to be older and more right-wing than the average Briton. “It is hard to imagine a more moderate Conservative being chosen by a base that is so ideologically and demographically unrepresentative of the average voter,” Professor Bale said.

Further complicating matters for the moderates, the pool of credible candidates shrank when Penny Mordaunt, a senior minister, lost her seat in the election, thus exiting the race.

That has boosted the prospects of right-wing contenders, including Priti Patel, a former home secretary; Kemi Badenoch, a former business and trade minister; and Suella Braverman, another former home secretary. Some of her rhetoric has echoed that of Mr Farage, and she has described the arrival of asylum seekers in small boats on Britain’s south coast as an “invasion”.

Some Conservatives hope that the charismatic but scandal-prone Mr Johnson (who did not stand for election) could return to combat the threat posed by Reform.

The most open contender to invite Mr Farage into the Conservative ranks is Ms Braverman, and analysts do not rate her chances of becoming leader as likely. Most of her rivals are wary of Mr Farage, perhaps sensing that he would be well placed to eclipse them.

“I don’t think we’ll see a Conservative Party involved with Farage for very long; he just doesn’t believe in the Conservative Party,” Professor Goodwin said.

Speaking before the election, Mr Farage told The New York Times that he “genuinely cannot see the Conservative Party as we know it being fit for purpose in any way: Brexit has exposed the divisions between the two wings very clearly.” Asked if he might rejoin, Mr Farage said: “It’s not going to happen.”

Assuming this is correct, much will depend on his ability to transform the emerging Reform UK, which has only a skeletal infrastructure, into a force capable of competing in the next general election, which must be held by 2029.

Whether it can do so is far from certain. In local elections, Reform performed significantly worse than UKIP, suggesting that its activist base is fragmented and demonstrating that it is what Professor Bale calls an “AstroTurf party, rather than a grassroots party”.

Racist and homophobic comments made by some Reform supporters and candidates have sparked outrage, highlighting the party's difficulty in verifying its key supporters.

And Mr Farage, as Reform leader, has struggled to delegate or share the limelight. He also has a reputation for falling out with colleagues.

Mr Farage “clearly finds it very difficult to tolerate any kind of opposition or alternative direction for the party suggested by anyone else,” Professor Bale said.

“He is the best one-man band.”

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